From Endurance to Dressage
For the past few months, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage has been trying to help me understand how to ask Izzy for a longer stride without causing Izzy to feel anxious about it. I've been making some progress, but I've really struggled with understanding what Sean meant when he said to ask for the longer stride and then allow Izzy to come back on his own.
A week or so ago, I had a big AHA moment when I realized that the "ask" can only come when Izzy is soft in his neck and not pushing back against me. On top of that, the "ask" can't result in his head popping up either. As I rode this week, I started working really hard to put those two things together: asking for the longer stride while keeping Izzy's head and neck steady.
From out of nowhere came this idea of sitting on a porch swing. Have you ever been in a hammock or a porch swing? Usually, you put a foot on the ground or up on the railing and you give yourself one gentle push to get the swing to rock. Then you just ride that swinging motion until it's about to stop. Just before it does, your give yourself another push and you ride that motion.
It suddenly occurred to me that that was what Sean meant. In the canter, I made sure that Izzy was soft in his neck, and then I just pushed. Sure enough, he increased his energy, but rather than push again and again, I just rode the motion and allowed his energy to dissipate on its own. As soon as he felt relaxed and soft in his neck, I pushed again. We traveled around the arena with me pushing every so often to keep the swing going.
Before beginning my lesson with Sean on Saturday morning, I ran the swing metaphor by him and asked if that was what he meant. He wholeheartedly agreed and said that for now, that was exactly the feeling he was hoping I'd get. As we teach Izzy that a more powerful and energetic stride can feel safe and comfortable, I can start to add more and more "pushes" until Izzy can hold that energy on his own.
After Izzy was warmed up, I asked for the canter and applied the idea of giving him pushes as his "swing" slowed down. Sean probably wasn't surprised by the result, but I sure was. Suddenly, Izzy's canter was much energetic, but relaxed. He was steady in the bridle, soft in his neck, and very rideable. As a teacher, I am always so pleased when my kiddos finally grasp an idea and can apply it, so I am certain Sean was fist pumping and high fiving himself. As for me, I was thrilled that I was finally able to be so effective in my riding
Sean asked how that idea was working in the trot lengthening. Not so well. The idea is much easier to apply in the canter as that gait has a much longer moment of suspension. The canter actually feels like being in a rocking chair. To help me understand how to apply the idea to the trot, Sean explained that I should follow the same protocol: ask when Izzy is soft in his under neck, but since he doesn't balance himself nearly so well in the trot, I can only push and let Izzy go for one stride. After that, I need to rebalance him with my posting so that he never gets a chance to take that hurried, unbalanced step.
I don't know why I continue to be amazed when Sean's teaching actually works, but I do. It took us a few minutes to get the conversation going, but Izzy started to listen to my posting rhythm. I gave a gentle push, he responded, and I immediately slowed my posting tempo. I gave another push, he responded, and I again slowed my posting. Suddenly, he was feeling the half halt, and he came back to a walk without a loss of balance or any anxiety.
With that, we ended the work while Sean and I talked about my recent crisis of faith. It seems strange to see so much progress and still feel so ineffective, but there it is. Sean and I had a long talk about goals, but I'll save that for tomorrow.
In the meantime, we're just a swingin' ...
Each week, I take a lesson from Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. Each week, it seems as though Izzy and I take yet another step backwards. I know this isn't true; it can't be. Sean calls it digging into the problem bit by bit. Or chipping away at it. Or really getting in there. Basically, what he means is that we're undoing a lot of mistakes, but by doing so, we're going to have a much better horse in the end.
Sean hasn't come right out and blamed me for anything, he would never do that, and I know that if asked, he would say there is no blame to assign. We do our best with what we have. Izzy and I have been at this for a really long time. His early fear and tension wouldn't have been easy for any rider to overcome. Not to get defensive or anything, especially since I know I've made plenty of mistakes, but Izzy hasn't necessarily made things easy for me either. And while I've made plenty of mistakes, I've also done some things right.
Every Saturday, what Sean shows me is a better way to communicate with Izzy. So while it feels like we're going backwards - we spent nearly an hour trying to get a single, balanced stride that was longer than the one before it, Sean would definitely say we're progressing forward. Every time that I try to complain about how sloooowwwwwllllly we're moving - snails are running marathons while Izzy and I "improve," Sean tells me how thrilled he is with Izzy's increased willingness to let me in and take control.
This weekend, Sean wanted to come back to the idea of lengthening Izzy's stride. The weekend before, Izzy would have none of it. He melted down as I tried to build the positive tension needed for more thrust in the lengthening of stride. On Saturday, instead of waiting until later in the ride, Sean suggested we play around with the lengthening idea while Izzy was still fresh.
Izzy is pretty talented. The movements themselves aren't tricky for him, but doing them with relaxation terrifies him. I can "package him up" for shoulder-in, half pass, etc., but when it comes time to let him "go" in a forward and straight movement such as the medium trot, he just doesn't know how to let his body relax enough to make it happen.
Week after week, Sean continues to coach me, reminding me to ask for just a stride or two and then allow Izzy to come back to a more collected gait on his own. Yeah, yeah, yeah ... I get it, and then it just doesn't happen. What happens is I ask for that tiny bit extra and Izzy flings his head up and tightens his back. But this week, somewhere during Sean's coaching and Izzy's head flinging, I had a slow motion moment where I thought, wait, you mean just try to keep his neck longer and let it happen? I don't know why that sounds so epiphanous, but suddenly, it seemed much clearer than it had the day before.
Everything that Sean has me do is slower and in much smaller parts. Sometimes, Sean will watch me spend entire minutes at the halt as I ask Izzy to truly let his under neck muscle go. It doesn't matter how long it takes. Spending 5 minutes today will pay off tomorrow because it will only take 4 minutes. That's how I finally understood what Sean wanted in the medium gaits. It isn't that he wants to see a medium trot. Instead, he wants to see the foundation for the medium trot. He wants to see Izzy say, roger that, let me just get soft so that my body can do that.
It isn't really about the medium trot or canter at all. Well, it is of course, but right now it's about showing Izzy that he can trust me not to ask him to do something that he can't do and to be there for him as he needs help. I won't say that suddenly a fantastic medium trot came the next time I asked, but I can say that I have a better understanding of how that will eventually happen. Before anything great does happen though, there is still quite a bit that needs to be fixed. It's been six months. How long will it take? I don't know, but the farther Sean helps me break it down, the better things are getting.
For all the backward steps, the demolition of old habits, and the rebuilding, I think I am seeing what this remodel will eventually look like.
Last week, Izzy got crankier each day I rode. Rather than push him through the spookiness and reluctance to go forward, I backed off and worked him at the walk, returning to trot when he felt more ready. On Friday, I rolled my eyes in exasperation. What now? He was very unhappy in his work, so I spent the last 20 minutes of the ride just walking, asking him to move his body around. As I rode, it occurred to me that Friday was the first day of October. That explained it.
Every spring and fall - February and October to be precise, Izzy experiences some neurological/physiological pain or discomfort commonly referred to as Trigeminal-mediated headshaking. It happens every year like clockwork. On the first warm day in February - here, that means our first couple of 80 degree days, Izzy flicks his head sharply, rubs at his nose, and snorts/sneezes frequently. To see him do it, it looks like he's being stung on the nose. In the fall, right around October, the symptoms are different. Instead of visual head shaking, he becomes very distressed while being ridden. He spooks, chomps frantically at the bit, gets very wide-eyed, and generally acts miserable.
My vet and I have discussed this many times. In his experience, seasonal changes can induce headshaking. For Izzy, it is the amount of daylight we have in spring and fall that trigger his symptoms. In February, our days begin getting longer quickly, and in October, the daylight is fast disappearing. It's interesting that it is only the equinoxes that affect him, not the solstices (when the sun is at its highest and lowest points). Early on, I tried a few things to mitigate the symptoms - an anatomical bridle, a nose net, magnesium, and other supplements. Nothing really worked. The symptoms just pass on their own.
On Saturday morning, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. While I waited for Sean to join me in the Pivo Cast, I warmed Izzy up. To my surprise, he was very willing, in front of my leg, and soft. Sean joined me, and we got to work. For the first half of the lesson, Izzy did everything that was asked of him, and everything felt fabulous. Over the past few months, Sean has shown me how to loosen Izzy's back by doing lots of leg yields and other exercises that encourage Izzy to cross over with his hind legs. Each week, Sean helps me build on what we learned the week before.
After a short walk break, Sean suggested we work on a tiny bit of lengthening. Almost immediately, Izzy shut down. He tightened his back, spooked in every corner, and began gnashing at the bit. I was very surprised because what we had been asking him to do beforehand - canter leg yields, was much more difficult. So why get so stressed out over a bit of a trot lengthening?
I immediately felt my frustration rise. Sean reminded me not to make it a "thing," something I had just blogged about, but it had already become a thing. We were struggling with one corner in particular. Each time we came through it, Izzy flew sideways, twisting his body violently as he tried to jerk the reins through my fingers. Sean encouraged me to avoid riding into that corner with the expectation that Izzy might spook. I explained to him that unless I put my aids on and really pushed him into the corner, I had no control. I understood what Sean was asking me to do, but he couldn't feel Izzy. I knew that without putting my aids on, there was no way Izzy was going into that corner.
After another huge spook and bolt, I told Sean I needed to change the conversation, and I let Izzy canter. After several circles, Sean asked me to walk him because he could see that the tension was only escalating, and that is what we are trying to avoid. As we walked, I went back to the work I'd been doing during the week, lots of turns, ten-meter half circles, turns on the forehand - anything that asked Izzy to move his body around.
As I helped Izzy to relax, Sean and i chatted about what was going on. When I asked why the trot lengthening set Izzy off after the much harder leg yield work, Sean explained that going forward while straight is a tension building movement. In order to lengthen, horses have to build positive tension. For Izzy, when he's already experiencing the "discomfort" of the headshaking, that added bit of tension is simply more than he can handle.
Rather than be discouraged by the situation, Sean explained that we now have an opportunity to build more trust with Izzy. By not pushing him through the work but by backing off, we are telling Izzy that we hear him and that we are here to support him. Izzy's willingness to work in the first part of the lesson proved that my approach the day before had made a difference. As long as this episode lasts, Sean encouraged me to go as slowly as I need to because once this is over, Izzy will have even more trust in me.
Last week I shared Sean's post about taking the time that it takes. When we listen to our horses and do what they need, we will ultimately get much farther in our journey than if we try to push them before they are ready. Sean helped me see that rather than seeing this as a setback, I need to use it as an opportunity to further strengthen my relationship with Izzy.
I have a very complicated horse. Whenever I remind Sean of this fact, he rolls his eyes (I think because I can't actually see him do it) and says, "if they were all easy, we'd all be Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro." It's easy to be patient once or twice or even five times, but Sean's level of patience with Izzy and me is now appearing to be unlimited. Each time I bring Sean a new problem, he looks it over, gives it a thought, and reduces it to a tiny pebble.
Instead of seeing a mountain of problems that I can't overcome, Sean is creating a path of pebbles that serve to keep the dust down.
Work has been overwhelming and our weather, horrendous. This summer, we've had at least 67 days where the temperatures were 100 degrees or higher. We've also broken the record for the number of days where our lows were 80 degrees or above, 18 at last count. And now, our sky is once again brown and yellow from smoke drifting down from Tulare County's fires. It has now been seven weeks since I have been able to ride in the afternoons after work.
Despite the long work hours, the heat, and toxic air, Izzy and I continue to show steady and very real progress. No matter how tired I am, each Saturday morning I gather all of my technology and take a virtual lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. No matter how long his own week has been - cleaning stalls, taking care of sick or injured horses, riding client horses, giving lessons, Sean continues to make time for me week after week.
As I rode on Saturday, the one idea that kept coming back to me was this: Izzy's tension is slowly turning from a "thing" to nothing. That doesn't mean he has stopped spooking and gawking. In fact, he spooked so violently at one point that even Sean gasped. We were cantering into a corner, and I was focused on getting into the corner deeply to give us room to straighten and leg yield away from the rail, when suddenly, there was no neck in front of me. Izzy simply vanished. It was a time traveling moment for sure. One second I was in the corner, the next, I was hovering in the air, and in the third moment, I was suddenly in the middle of the arena laughing. I was still in the saddle though.
Sean estimated that Izzy leaped at least six feet sideways. We were both pretty impressed that I was still in the saddle. Sean credited "the save" to being loose through my seat and hips. Had I been tense or tight, I would never have been able to ride it out, but by being loose through my body, I was able to stay with Izzy as he dodged left.
So yes, the spooks are still there. The difference, thanks to Sean, is that I am (usually) no longer overreacting to the theatrics. In fact, a lot of the time I don't even react at all. I simply continue on as though nothing happened. Sean explained it thusly: since I am no longer getting tense and reactive, Izzy doesn't get anxious and worried. Each time that I continue on as though it is a non-event, Izzy takes his cue from me and gets back to work. Instead of the situation escalating, nothing happens, and the more nothing happens, well, the more nothing happens.
It isn't that I have been ridding with fear, the tendency to grab at the reins and stiffen up is just an instinctual reaction. By Sean making me aware of what my body was doing, I've been able to change my response. Body awareness is a great thing. Most of the time we don't realize we're doing something until someone points it out. The same is true of my inside left leg. For so long, I've been squeezing at the knee which has left my lower leg to swing. Now that Sean has made me aware of it, I am consciously putting weight in my foot so that my leg nestles into the girth instead of swinging.
I've never blamed Izzy's lack of progress on Izzy. Okay, sometimes he is just a jerk, but I've always said that if one of my horses is having trouble, it's in all likelihood because of something I'm doing or not doing. With a new awareness of what my body is doing, I am able to better control the things that I have been doing unconsciously. Maybe having less time to ride has made me really focus on what I am doing when I do have time to be in the saddle. Don't they say it's perfect practice that makes perfect? Doing nothing when Izzy gets tense has done more for our progress than doing a whole lot of something poorly.
"Doing nothing" doesn't seem like a sound strategy, but it's working for Izzy.
My last lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage was mind-numbing boring. The kind of boring where you want to gouge out your eyeballs. It is really, really hard to watch someone struggle around and around a 20-meter circle. With beginners, it's not boring because the very air is pregnant with hope and expectation. There's a lot less hope when the rider has a Bronze Medal. Watching that student struggle to get her horse's head out of the clouds is enough to make you want to watch paint dry. And when I say that student, you know I am referring to myself. Sheesh.
But! I have good news. On Saturday morning, Sean was finally able to see some progress. I don't know who was more surprised, him or me. I mean, I know I am a hard worker, but hard work hasn't necessarily equated to progress in my little corner of the world. Suddenly though, I am starting to put together what Sean has been teaching me over the past six months.
We're not doing anything earth shattering or new, we're just chipping away at my position and Izzy's tension. We're doing First Level at a show at the end of October, so Sean is working to increase Izzy's balance and ability to carry himself. One way we've been working on that is by riding steep leg yields at the trot and even at the canter. Since our single loop at the canter is improving, Sean had me ride a canter leg yield from the rail. I don't think I've ever done that before.
As we came through the corner on a left bend on the left lead, my brain short-circuited for a moment because I couldn't figure out how to ride a canter leg yield away from the rail. I instantly turned it into a half pass. To be a leg yield, the horse can't be bent in the direction of travel like in the half pass. Here's a description of the movement - As you turn onto the long side of the arena, close your outside leg and gently push the horse toward the centerline, allowing him to straighten his body and lose the natural inside bend and flexion. You can also use your outside rein to gently flex the horse to the outside as he yields sideways away from the outside leg. - source
It took a few tries. If you haven't ridden leg yield that way, believe me when I say it is harder than it sounds. And not just for the rider; Izzy really struggled to maintain his balance. I think it is called counter yielding in canter. Sean cautioned me not to over do it. A couple of repetitions during each ride would be sufficient to help Izzy learn to better balance himself.
Having weekly homework has really helped me remain focused. I've never been one to ride aimlessly - I always have a plan, but being under a weekly microscope keeps me from wandering so far off the path. Besides learning a great deal, I really enjoy my rides with Sean. He has a well developed sense of humor and is quite good at releasing the tension before it raises my affective filter. Stress, anxiety, and embarrassment all contribute to create a mental block in language learners that is referred to as the affective filter. The term is a metaphor traditionally applied to language acquisition for second language learners, but really, isn't dressage about learning a new language?
The other day, I exchanged emails with a reader who is an endurance rider [Hi, April D.!). I told her that while I don't miss endurance racing, I wouldn't trade those years for anything. The same is true of my dressage journey. As hard as it is, and even though I feel like I struggle more than most, I wouldn't trade the struggle because then I wouldn't learn nearly as much. Every trainer with whom I've worked has taught me something new.
Like I said, things have been anything but boring.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at Second Level. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read